The Positive Mental Map

I once had the opportunity to work on a project designed to elevate over 60 nursing units in a large hospital. We worked with the directors of the nursing units, dividing them into small groups, and spent a week with each group teaching them how they could better empower themselves and their people.

The work proved to be a great challenge. It seemed that each time we surfaced some positive practice, one of the directors would explain why it was impossible to employ it. They spoke of administrators who were punishing, doctors who were insensitive, policies that were inflexible, peers who did not cooperate, and employees who just wanted to do their job and go home. Experience taught these directors of nursing that the organization’s culture was constraining.

The directors, like many people in positions of authority did not aspire to excellence. They instead sought to meet the minimum assumed requirement in order to survive. Survival, not flourishing, is the aspiration of conventional managers. They do not look for or expect to find excellence because they make conventional assumptions. The assumptions look like this.

People:

  • Pursue self-interests
  • Minimize personal costs
  • Feel fear
  • Prefer the status quo
  • Stay in their roles
  • Speak in politically correct ways
  • Fail to see opportunities
  • Compete for resources
  • Experience conflict
  • Become alienated
  • Deny feedback and fail to learn
  • Underperform
  • Personally stagnate

As we sought to modify beliefs and elevate aspirations, we began to examine the nursing units more closely. We looked, in particular, for a positive exception, a unit that defied the conventional culture of the hospital. The exception existed and was easy to find. When we asked administrators if there was such a unit of excellence, they all answered in the affirmative and named the same one, which I will call Unit 5.

Unit 5 served children who were seriously ill. This was demanding work, and yet they were usually first or second on every hard performance measure. Measures of morale were also high. In many of the other units, turnover was high; in this unit, however, the turnover rate was close to zero, and there was a long list of nurses waiting to transfer in. Why?

Other units in the hospital also served populations like Unit 5, but none performed like Unit 5. They seemed to take a unique approach to everything they did. Earlier in the hospital’s history, for example, every unit had been given money to hire a hostess to greet new patients. Nearly all the units hired a nurse. Unit 5, however, hired a drama major and then sent her to clown school. When very sick children and anxious parents arrived on the unit for the first time, a very skilled clown greeted them. Within minutes, they felt they had become part of a special community in which they would be treated as full human beings.

When we interviewed the nurses in Unit 5, they told stories of people going the extra mile to take care of patients and each other. They spoke of collaboration and achievement. It seemed to be a place of high commitment and compassion. Most of these unusual characteristics traced back to the unit director. She seemed to operate by a different mental map. We call it the positive mental map. Here we compare the positive map to the conventional map.

People:

•    Pursue self-interests

•    Minimize personal costs

•    Feel fear

•    Prefer the status quo

•    Stay in their roles

•    Speak in politically correct ways

•    Fail to see opportunities

•    Compete for resources

•    Experience conflict

•    Become alienated

•    Deny feedback and fail to learn

•    Underperform

•    Personally stagnate

People:

•    Embrace the common good

•    Make spontaneous contributions

•    Feel confident

•    Seek growth

•    Overcome constraints

•    Expand their roles

•    Express their authentic voice

•    See and seize new opportunities

•    Build social networks

•    Nurture high-quality connections

•    Embrace feedback

•    Exceed expectations

•    Learn and flourish

The Positive Organization is a book that invites all of us to become aware of the assumptions that form our individual mental maps (what we believe), and how those maps guide our responses to what we observe and experience (our behavior), and how our responses create and reinforce the cultures we live in. It invites each of us to see the world in a way that will allow us to help others to flourish and exceed expectations.

Reflection

What assumptions do I make?

What existing excellence could I use to change assumptions?

How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization

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